Sax Rohmer page
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||Sax Rohmer (1883-1959) - original name Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward; wrote also as Michael Furey|
Prolific English mystery writer, best known for the master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu and his opponents Denis Nayland Smith, Dr. Petrie, named after the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, and the beautiful Kâramanéh, the source of Petrie's daydreams, whose "eyes held a challenge wholly Oriental in its appeal." In spite of Rohmer's popularity, his family lived for long periods in poverty because of the bad deals he made with publishers.
"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man..." (from The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, 1913)
Sax Rohmer was born Arthur Henry Ward in Birmingham of Irish parents. His father, William Ward, was employed as an office clerk and eventually held the position of office manager. Rohmer's mother, Margaret Mary (Furey) Ward, was neurasthenic and increasingly dependent on alcohol. Young Sax Rohmer received no formal schooling until he was nine or ten years old, but his father probably taught his son to read. Rohmer adopted the name Sarsfield at the age of 18, impressed by his mother's alcoholic claims of being descended from a famous 17th-century Irish general Patrick Sarsfield. He later explained that the pen name came from "sax" which was Saxon for "blade" and "rohmer" which meant "roamer".
After finishing his schooling, Rohmer worked in odd jobs, but even as a child, he had dreamt of becoming a writer. He was briefly a bank clerk in Threadneedle Street, then a clerk in a gas company, an errand boy at a small local newspaper, and a reporter on the weekly Commercial Intelligence. At the age of 20 Rohmer started his writing career. "My earliest interests," he later said, "were centered in Ancient Egypt and I accumulated a large library on Egyptology and occult literature." In 1903 Rohmer's first short story, 'The Mysterious Mummy', appeared in Pearson's Weekly. He made a short trip to the Continent and upon his return started to make his way in the cheap literary printing business and the theatrical world.
In 1909 he married Rose Elizabeth Knox, whose father had been a well-known comedian in his youth. When Rose Knox met Rohmer she was performing in a juggling act with her brother Bill. For almost two years they kept the marriage a secret from Rose's family – she lived with her sister and Rohmer with his father. Rose was psychic and Rohmer himself seemed to attract metaphysical phenomena. There's a story, that he consulted with his wife a ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer was 'C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N'.
Rohmer wrote comedy sketches for entertainers, and continued to produce stories and serials for the newspaper and magazine markets. These early writings were later gathered into collections. Rohmer's first book, Pause! came out in 1910, and his first Fu Manchu novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, three years later. It gained immediate success. In the character of the seemingly deathless Dr. Fu Manchu, the leader of Si-Fan organization, Rohmer expressed racist fears, which had produced the concept of the "Yellow Peril" – according to racist prejudices the Chinese were mandarin warlords and opium-den keepers in Limehouse. Sinister Oriental Fu Manchu stereotypes were feared since the turn of the century, appearing in great numbers in popular fiction. From post-WW II era perhaps the most famous example of the type is Dr. No from Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Dr. No (1958). Rohmer himself never visited China, but he know about the Chinatown of London. He did there some research for an article about a Chinese named Mr. King, reputedly connected to organized crime.
sociologist Virginia Berridge has estimated, that the
ethnic Chinese population in London's East End, in the period of 1900
through to the Second World War, was counted only in hundreds. The
majority of the population worked in such professions as cooking and
the laundering of clothes. Most of the cocaine came from Germany, where
it was sold almost without restriction. This old irrational racist
hatred has oozed from the novels of Edgar Wallace and John Buchan, who
included wicked Jews in his work, to the Flash Gordon serials featuring
the evil Ming the Merciless. In 2001 a Saudi Arab and real-life
character, Osama bin Laden, became known as the greatest terrorist
mastermind of the time. He also disappeared mysteriously for a long
period of time. "Here,
perhaps, lies one of the secrets of Fu Manchu's power to fascinate,"
Clive Bloom wrote in Cult Fiction (1996). "The Sinophobic
message of Rohmer's books is underpinned by three theories: the notion
of conspiracy which is based upon a corporate, international secret
society acting out of Limehouse, the notion of a parallel supernatural
plane of existence and the notion of eternal recurrence." (Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory by Clive Bloom, 1991, p. 191)
'"Greeting! I am recalled home by One who may not be denied. In much that I came to do I have failed. Much that I have done I would undo; some little I have undone. Out of fire I came--the smoldering fire of a thing one day to be a consuming flame; in fire I go. Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires! Farewell.
Originally Fu Manchu was introduced in 'The Zayat Kiss' in the October 1912 issue of the British magazine The Story-Teller. Fu Manchu had green eyes, "an emanation of Hell", as Rohmer wrote. Sir Denis Nayland Smith is the opponent of the diabolically ingenious villain for more than a quarter of a century. Moreoever, he is a spymaster, Burmese Commissioner, and a controller of the British Secret Service and the CID. Nayland Smith pursues Fu Manchu like Van Helsing the lord of the vampires in Dracula. During the following years the stories were published in collections, but at the end of the third book The Si-Fan Mysteries (1917), Fu Manchu is supposedly dead, and another villain has taken his place. '"That is almost incredible," I said; terror can have no darker meaning than that which Dr. Fu-Manchu gave to it. Fu-Manchu is dead, so what have we to fear?" "We have to fear," replied Smith throwing himself into a corner of the settee, "the Si-Fan!"'
In 1915 Rohmer invented the detective character Gaston Max,
who appeared first in The Yellow Claw.
Another interesting serial character was the occult detective Morris
Klaw, who solved his cases by using his own dreams and visions. Sumuru
was a female master plotter, whom Rohmer abandoned after five published
volumes. She appeared also in such films as The Million Eyes of
Sumuru (1967), starring and Shirley Eaton (as Su Maru), Frankie
Avalon and George Nader, The Seven Secrets of Sumuru (1969),
starring Shirley Eaton, Richard Wyler and George Sanders, and Sumuru
(2003) starring Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld. The detective Paul Harley
was the hero of Fire-Tongue
(1921) and B
At-Wing (1921). Chief Inspector Red Kerry solved crimes in Dope, a Story of Chinatown (1919)
and other stories. Dope
was one of the earliers thrillers with
a drug trafficing theme. This 88,000-word bestseller exploited
the tragic death of the London stage actress and musical comedy star
Billie Carleton, who reportedly died due to an overdose of cocaine.
Rohmer claimed that the book did not have any connection to the
Carleton affair. ('Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril' by Jon B. Cooke, in Sax Rohmer's Dope, adapted and illustrated by Trina Robbins, 2017, pp. 64-65)
For periods during the 1920s and 1930s, Rohmer was one of the most widely read and most highly paid magazine writers in the English language. He also produced works for the stage, and created tunes to several of his songs by humming them and having them transcribed by a collaborator. Rohmer's interest in mysticism and the occult made him join the occult organization of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Its other members included Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats. Reportedly Rohmer's family doctor, Dr. R. Watson Counsell, initiated him into the Rosicrucian Society. Rohmer also wrote an introduction for Councell's book Apologia Alchymiae. Rohmer's supernatural stories include Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918), in which an Egyptian mummy is revived to practise ancient sorcery in the modern world, and Grey Face (1924), in which a supposed reincarnation of Cagliostro causes much havoc. The Green Eyes of Bâst (1920) was an occult detective tale about the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
Success brought Rohmer financial security – for a short time. He traveled with his wife in the Near East, Jamaica, and in Egypt, and built a country house called Little Gatton in the Surrey countryside. But the money went as fast as it had come – Rohmer's business instincts were not good and he gambled away much of his earnings at Monte Carlo. In 1955 Rohmer was said to have sold the film, television and radio rights in his books for more than four million dollars.
The Fu Manchu series started again after years of silence with Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931); she was later featured in the film Esclavas del crimen (1987), directed by Jesus Franco. Lina Romay, Franco's wife, played the daughter, who is named in the book Fah Lo Suee ("Sweet Perfume"). The Bride of Fu Manchu (1933) was set in France and narrated by Petrie's friend Dr. Alan Sterling, an amateur biologist. This time Fu Manchu has invented a "super plague". Nayland Smith is appointed "Federal Agent 56" in President Fu Manchu (1936), in which Manchu tries to install his favorite as the next president of the U.S. Noteworthy, in The Drums of Fu Manchu (1939), which was published before the start of the Second World War, Fu Manchu schemes to kill all potential warmongers – he wants to maintain world peace. However, Sir Lionel Barton, the greatest Orientalist in Europe, says in The Island of Fu Manchu (1941), that Fu Manchu is "an enemy whose insects, bacteria, stranglers, strange poisons, could do more harm in a week than Hitler's army could do in a year." By the time of the writing of this book, the United States had not joined the World War II. This time Fu Manchu's secret long-term plan is to weaken the US military.
After the war the Rohmers moved to New York City. In order to qualify for permanent-resident status, they had to leave the country temporarily. From New York they moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, before finally settling in White Plains, New York. Rohmer's later works include Hangover House (1949), based on an unproduced play from the late 1930s, and the Sumuru series, five paperback novels published between 1950 and 1956.
During the Korean War period, Rohmer declared that Dr. Fu Manchu was "still an enemy to be reckoned with and as menacing as ever, but he has changed with the times. Now he is against the Chinese Communists and, indeed, Communists everywhere, and a friend of the American people." Sax Rohmer died from a combination of pneumonia and stroke on June 1, 1959. Emperor Fu Manchu (1959) was Rohmer's last work of fiction. While hunting for his arch enemy, Nayland Smith disguises himself as a Chinese munk. At one turn, Fu Manchu suggest cooperation in bringing down the Communists. "You are perfectly aware that the Si-Fan is intertional," Fu Manchu says. "Ridding China of Communism is one of its objectives – yes. But ridding the world of this Russian pestilence is its main purpose."
The golden age of Fu Manchu stories, and also the peak of Sax Rohmer's career, was in the 1930s, although the Chinese super-criminal was revived again in 1957. A sequel Ten Years Beyond Baker Street (1984), in which the Evil Doctor fights Sherlock Holmes, was written by Cay Van Ash, a friend of Rohmer who had lived for thirty years in Japan. It was followed by The Fires of Fu Manchu (1987). Five Fu Manchu works were translated into Japan before WW II, but not into Chinese.
There are also radio adaptations, and a Marvel comic (The Hands of Shang-Chi), the TV series The Adventures of Fu Manchu (1955-56), starring Glenn Gordon as Fu Manchu and Lester Matthews as Nayland Smith. This revitalizing of the evil genius was produced by Republic Productions Inc., Studio City Television Productions. Rohmer's villain has inspired several movies, starring amongst others Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers (The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu in 1980). John Carradine and Sir Cedric Hardwicke played Fu Manchu and Nyland Smith in a television pilot directed by William Cameron Menzies.
In Finland, the Library Office at the Ministry of Education viewed Rohmer's works with suspicion. From the 1910s the office published Arvosteleva kirjaluettelo (Critical Book Catalogue), a more or less official guide for librarians in their book selection. It constantly warned of buying cheap novels and other popular literature for public libraries. Sax Rohmer's work received in the 1920s mixed reviews: Fu-Manchu, kauhujen mies (The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, 1923): "Horror story, written quite skilfully." Kuolleista noussut tri Fu-Mnchu (The Devil Doctor, 1925): "Adventure stories about the strange Dr. Fu-Manchu have been translated into Finnish before. They are written fairly skillfully and have plenty of suspense and Oriental atmosphere. But first of all, they are horror stories and they are not generally recommendable." This recommendation was given by Helle Cannelin, director of the Library Office 1921-49. Cannelin did not like Conan Doyle's detective novels either. In his review of Keltainen kynsi (The Yellow Claw, 1927), Tulikieli (Fire-Tongue, 1927), Martti Tolvanen, Lic.Med, wrote: "The writer is not totally untalented, but it looks as if he is putting on paper miserable adventure stories with a sneer. However, they have readers here and elsewhere – among young boys, who knows. Worth only for 'a collection of insignificant books.'"
For further reading: The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia by Christopher Frayling (2014); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002); 'Western Images of Asia: Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril,' by Thomas J. Cogan, in Waseda Studies in Social Sciences (Nov. 2002); 'Keltaisten varjojen aika' by Boris Hurtta, in Portti 1 (1998); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998); Cult Fiction by Clive Bloom (1996); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); The Guide to Supernatural Fiction by Everett F. Bleiler (1983); The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940 by William F. Wu (1982); Master of Villainy: A Biography of Sax Rohmer by Cay Van Ash and Elisabeth Sax Rohmer (1972); The Mystery Writer's Art by Robert E. Briney (1970)